Russia begins airstrikes in Syria against Islamic State

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Russia said Wednesday that it has begun conducting airstrikes against the terrorist organization Islamic State in war-torn Syria, the Interfax news agency reported.

Russian warplanes are conducting the strikes against military equipment, weaponry storage facilities, communications hubs and means of transportation controlled by the group, a Defence Ministry spokesman told Interfax.

President Vladimir Putin earlier in the day got unanimous approval from Russia’s parliament to use military force in Syria following a request for intervention from the Syrian government.

“The support will be conducted from the air without participation in ground operations,” Putin said in televised comments.

The Kremlin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said the support is exclusively within Russia’s national interests.

The Foreign Ministry told dpa last week that “there are about 2,400 Russian citizens fighting for Islamic State. Russia is concerned about the threat they would pose if they return to their homeland.”

Interfax on Wednesday cited an undisclosed source familiar with the situation as saying Russia was planning to use warplanes and helicopters based near the major port city of Latakia to support Syrian government troops.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is one of Russia’s closest allies in the Middle East, and his troops are overstretched, fighting a four-year war against jihadists and Western-backed rebels seeking to end his rule.

The UN Human Rights Council has accused al-Assad’s regime of committing crimes against humanity, including killing civilians, in its efforts to hold onto power.

The council has made analogous accusations against major groups battling al-Assad’s forces, especially Islamic State.

A Putin spokesman revealed this month that the Russian president was considering sending troops to Syria, and the US government said it was monitoring a Russian military build-up at an airport near Latakia.

Russia said it is sending weapons to al-Assad to help his government fight terrorist groups such as Islamic State, which controls large areas in Syria and Iraq.

Russia shrugged off US concerns of Russian troops in the conflict, saying “Russian military specialists” have been in Syria for many years to help with Russian-made equipment.

The US embassy told dpa on Wednesday that when Putin and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, met this week in New York “they agreed that the United States and Russia have a common interest in fighting Islamic State.”

Obama said in his speech to the United Nations that “the United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict.”

“However, our position is clear that President al-Assad is not a suitable partner for the fight against terror and extremism in Syria,” embassy spokesman Will Stevens said. “There is no sustainable path to stability within Syria that involves President al-Assad staying in power.”

A quarter of a million people have died in the conflict, according to estimates by the United Nations. More than half the country’s pre-war population of 22.4 million has been internally displaced or fled abroad.

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